Who wins tomorrow may be the most immediate concern of Americans, but not the most troubling to many of them. What comes through this journey around the country is a strong sense that people are becoming more concerned about the process than they are about the man who becomes the president. To a degree unmatched in earlier elections, they express a fear that the nation is declining seriously -- and they are blaming not just the president for the problems but the political system for both compounding and failing to solve them.

But before we get to other great political truths, as revealed after weeks of wandering, let the reader beware. We have been down this tract in the past, all of us, and we've all been affected by it. I offer my own experience as an example:

Among the remnants of my newspaper career, carelessly scattered about in boxes at home, I find the following yellowing pieces of paper. They contain these words culled from different presidential campaign trips beginning in 1960: After talking to people throughout the country the last seven weeks one can say that few Americans will be sorry to see this campaign end. . .

And: . . . An American returns home from a look at his country with one overwhelming impression. Everywhere, people are yearning for a special, if not impossible, brand of national leadership -- leadership that answers the unanswerable, solves the insoluble, removes frustration and doubt. . .

And: The clear lack of enthusiasm for any candidate is going to make it all the more difficult for the New leader to unite the country and move it forward. This is particularly true in view of a disquieting mood of discouragement among Americans in this year of shattering events and changes. . .

And: . . .After more than five weeks of traveling throughout the country, it's fair to say most Americans feel disappointed as they prepare to exercise their franchise. Or not to exercise it, as the case may be for so many. They had hoped for something better, and they don't think they're going to get it. This has been a sad and peculiar election. Sad, because once again people had begun to believe and have ended up reacting negatively. Peculiar, because so many contradictions are present in the nation. . .

I cite these observations from a succession of five previous presidential campaigns, not out of pride of authorship. Their only relevance to today comes as a way of cataloguing a national state of mind that had been developing for almost a generation now. The feelings about negative presidential choices are not new; they've been getting more pronounced election after election. The sense of national difficulties is hardly a new phenomenon, either; its focus is becoming sharper. The awareness of presidential failures is not a sudden flash of wisdom; the cracks in our mythical presidential pedestal are growing wider.

Now that this particular presidential campaign deserves a better rating than it has been receiving. Someone in Springfield, Ill., Mr. Lincoln's town, expressed common thoughts: "As far as the presidential race goes, it's the same here that you hear everywhere: We don't like any of the choices. I've never heard it anywhere near as strongly." What makes the present climate of disaffection so pronounced is that it comes after so long a period of political disappointments. Americans, optimists that they remain, keep wanting to believe -- and keep feeling let down, if not betrayed.

For that reason, among others, more and more conversation turns to the political system as being faulty. "It does need a complete overhaul," as someone else in Springfield said.

People are asking themselves questions that go far beyond the old complaints about the qualities of the candidates -- why a Goldwater or a McGovern or a Reagan or a Carter becomes a major-party nominee. They are saying there must be a better way. It's typical now to hear these conversations in all parts of the country, among all kinds of people. They are questioning the endless primaries, the vast expenditures of political money required to field a national campaign, the length of time it takes before the actual presidential campaign begins. But most of all they criticize the Congress.

"Congress is totally out of control," is a remark you'll hear often. "It really doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference who's elected president because they can't do anything anyway because they can't control Congress."

From that kind of criticism it's not unusual to hear a person wonder if we shouldn't have something like a parlimentary system, something that would work."Maybe this country has outlived this kind of system," as another citizen remarked. "I'm a registered Republican, but I think of myself as an independent. And I really wonder, with all the single-issue things going on, how our system can survive much longer."

You can hear the same kinds of concerns now in all types of gatherings in every section of the country, from Wall Street brokers to Midwestern housewives, from Southern businessmen to Western ranchers. You would not have heard anything comparable, or with such a degree of unanimity, on earlier trips across America. The message is clear: Politicians may fail to heed it now, but at their eventual peril, for a climate for change of a fundamental kind exists. It seems certain to grow stronger.

An underlying concern on voters' minds this fall was that sense of a breakdown of the governmental system; it was more troubling to people than the failures of recent presidents. And it was a subject that was never seriously addressed by the principal candidates. As last Tuesday's debate demonstrated so unhappily, neither Carter nor Reagan was able to articulate any kind of a vision for the future. cCarter's pitch was that we have excellent programs in place: They will make things better in the next four years. Reagan's was again to retreat into the past: Everything will be wonderful if we get government off our backs and live again as we did in the '50s. Those aren't the kinds of answers and discussions people I met these last months wanted to hear. They wanted to know how to make government better. If the system wasn't functioning, they wanted to hear what genuine ideas these men had to offer. They didn't get them.

Other common threads present in the country today add new dimensions to earlier travels. First, a general observation. The Country

In crossing the country it seems as if there are two Americas -- the America of the campaign caravans, the synthetic demonstrations, the brokered crowds, the hoarse shouts, the promises no one really believes, the appeals to the emotion rather than to the mind.

People have been angrier about this type of campaign than I can ever remember. No small part of their disgust concerns the way they have seen the press present the campaign -- the smug, know-it-all-attitudes they see coming across their cameras, the excessive attention to the daily political charge and counter-charge, the preoccupation with polls and media advisers and whiffs of one-day-wonders of scandal that always seem to dissipate with the next deadline. Their criticism of the press today differs from that of other campaigns. It's not so much bias they're concerned about nor the ideological conspiracies of which the press supposedly was a part in the Nixon-Agnew days; they don't think that the press has done a good enough job, that it reflects the lives they lead and the world they know. They have come to think of the press as one of the most powerful aspects of contemporary American life, a pervasive shaper of opinions and attitudes. As a lawyer in California said, Typically, "I think the media have a greater influence on our society than any other institution." What bothers them particularly is they don't think the press has adequately clarified the issues at a time when they are especially troubled by so many new complexities at home and abroad.

Therin lies a paradox about the other America, the one part from the campaign trail.

What you see is a place of quiet towns and peaceful cities, of people with good humor and confidence, of calm judgment and quiet strength. Despite all the dismal statistics about ravaging inflation, high unemployment, falling productivity, diminishing savings, you can't travel the land without being struck by how much material wealth exists. Everywhere, restaurants are crowded, hotels jammed, rental car offices packed, shops filled. Hard times there surely are for many, but many also are spending lavishly, taking vacations in Hawaii and Florida, staying in $100-a-night establishments, purchasing luxury items.

Yet this portrait is at sharp variance with what people everywhere have to say about the state of the nation. The Attitudes

Again, the differences are striking when compared to those of other election years. Now the attitudes expressed in every section of the country seem uniform. Whether it's television, the continuing movement of so many Americans to other areas, the higher levels of education achieved or the greater exposure to national and world events in general, the final disintergration of the old American regionlism appears to have occured. And after all the lengthy conversations, the overwhelming, overriding national opinion you find is a sense that something has gone seriously wrong. To the concerns about the political system are added others about the economic system. cTogether, they form a prevailing view that the country is approaching a new era -- and one that is deeply troubling. Anxiety, nervousness, apprehension exist.

Over and over people say the same things: We seem to have lost our place in the world . . . we seem to have lost our will or our nerve or our way. It's not a hopeless hand-wringing state of gloom. But it is deep and serious. Fear of inflation is paramount among the concerns. Continually soaring prices seep into everyone's consciousness, erode old optimisms, instill new doubts. The feeling is so strong that we can't survive unless something drastic is done about inflation that I suspect the next Congress, if not the next president, could well be forced by public opinion to institute a wage-and-price lid nationally.

Along with insidious inflation has come an accompanying concern about the nation's competitive position. Now you hear talk of business, labor and private citizens about the need to try something different. The favorite vehicle, raised all over, is the so-called Japanese model -- a partnership between labor, industry and government in which government establishes production quotas and works aggressively to sell its goods in foreign markets and protect them from foreign incursions. This idea by no means receives universal approval -- someone on Wall Street remarked to me that it smacks of fascism, and couldn't work in this society anyhow -- but the fact it is being discussed so widely illustrates the degree of willingness to try something new. dFor now you hear labor union officials and corporate executives both acknowledging mistakes in ways they certainly never would have admitted not so long ago. They are agreeing they need to establish new relationships.

Awareness of international problems has intensified the concerns about America's economic base. People know how dependent and vulnerable we are to the Mideast. For obvious reasons, Iran has been source of great frustration. The taking of the hostages, the failure to free them, the disastrous rescue mission that ended in flames and death on the desert, all have a profound affect on the nation's belief in its own abilities. When the missile blew up in its silo in Arkansas last month, it sent another tremor of unease throught the country. It was confirmation that our capacity to defend ourselves had been weakened and came as another blow to our belief that we are technologically superior to other societies.

The hostages have played a crucial role in this election. People have become more and more critical of Carter the longer they have remained in captivity. At this writing, on late Sunday afternoon, prospects for their release are -- again -- being raised. But it's doubtful if they do come home on election eve they will have much impact on the election returns. Certainly, if they don't, the next president will be unable to tolerate their continual imprisonment by doing nothing. Americans simply want an end to it -- and they would favor the use of force.

In that regard, attitudes about Carter's handling of the hostage situation have grown progressively more cynical as the campaign progressed. Early in September, in the first place visited, Orangeburg, S.C., one citizen voiced what turned out to be a common view elsewhere: "Yes, it's [the hostages] on people's minds," he said. "They say Carter's going to work out a deal. They'll be freed three days before the election. Funny, the way people think, but that's what they say."

It was in Orangeburg, too, that a black expressed what still is a chord that exists in the country today. "The biggest goal in my life," he said, "is to be part of the American dream." But he and others recognize the shape of that vision is changing, and the old assurances about the certainty of its being fulfilled are altering. The Changes

In this election year we've heard much about the rise of the religious fundamentalists as a new political force. Their influence nationally has been exaggerated; their zeal and presence in some sections have not.

Driving down the highway, for instance, on a hot morning in the Southwest, one hears message after message over the car radio. Here's one, from a tape-recording of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the so-called (and self-appointed) Moral Majority. Falwell's a cherubic evangelist who adopts a benevolent Friar Tuck manner but delivers a harsh message:

"If nearly half the population is born again, as pollster George Gallup believes, then why aren't things different? Why is there so much crime, so much poverty, and so much drug abuse . . . Two and a half centuries ago, at the start of the Great Awakening, there was at least a biblical concensus in what was about to become America. Certainly not everyone believed in God, but there were standards and absolutes that were absolute, that were universally held. Government was not subsidizing abortion, homosexuality was still viewed as a perversion, criminals knew they could expect punishment and would not get off lightly if they committed a crime, drug addicts were almost nonexistent, persons who exhibited loose moral behavior were not idealized as they are today. It is because immorality has become entrenched and institutionalized that Christians and other moral people have so much trouble making an impact. How, for example, do you counteract the negative inputs of a public school system that has your child for about six hours a day, five days a week? What you're trying to build into a child in an hour or two at home is torn down by the schools with the sex education classes and instruction about evolution and not the creation of mankind. It is difficult to cure poverty and reduce unemployment when we have a government that rewards the nonworker with welfare checks . . ."

The answer to all this woe is political action. As Falwell says: "What is necessary for the born-again people of America, the Moral Majority of America, to have an impact is for us to throw out of office with our votes those who have made America what it is today."

It is an ugly message, lacking compassion and charity, and one that stresses the negative. But aside from its effect in certain state elections -- and those are of questionable political value -- this kind of attitude does not reflect the country I found. Americans today are less ideological than in the past. There is no great swing to the right, as some have feared recently just as there wasn't to the left in the 1960s. People in the country today are far more sophisticated and far more tolerant, at least in my perspective of 20 years of viewing the country.

They see things not in simplicities, but complexities, and they are not about to be swayed by the dictates of any group proclaiming to speak for a "moral majority."

The same is true of attitudes about race, sexual mores and other personal values. Aside from the vocal single-issue interest groups, you simply don't hear the kinds of passion about such questions. Where once drugs, sex and other trappings of a permissive society were issues during election campaigns, now they are largely absent.

A different kind of change appears more significant, and little noticed. For this reporter, the most lasting impressions -- and the sharpest contrasts -- of the past two months came from successive visits to the Silicon Valley in California and to Youngstown, Ohio. Nowhere are the differences in America today more nakedly visible. In California, it is the problem of plenty that troubles some of the residents. In Youngstown, it is the problem of less that afflicts the area. One represents a form of the future -- burgeoning, industrious, ingenious, creating new forms and new industries, new lifestyles, a new American culture if you will. The other represents the past -- crumbling urban centers, deteriorating public services, foundering basic industries, old sections out of an older America.

What comes out of those places is a sense of a country drawing apart from itself. As surely as you can predict anything, the future heralds new Silicon Valleys springing up in the West, with a boom along the Rocky Mountain states that will further accelerate the differences. For the Silicon Valleys of America are populated by a homogenous group of people. They are clusters of success in a nation struggling to reverse failures. What seems inevitable is a further isolation between the older regions, with their vast problems of crime and poverty and joblessness and minorities, and the newer ones with their obvious promise and glowing examples of a comfortable, unthreatening life, for essentially similar affluent people.

At a time when the nation needs to draw closer together for its own survival, sections of it seem moving further apart. It is another of the many questions that will confront the next president of the United States, and the government he attempts to lead. The Election

Perhaps the most important of the changes, in these election-year journeys over the last two decades, has been in the way people think about the president himself. Those cries for presidential leadership that sounded so loudly in the past have subsided. People still want strong leadership, all right, but they no longer hold as naive a view about the infallible presidents. rIn their recognition that something seems wrong with the system, political and economic, they are not excluding themselves from responsibility. It's not unusual to hear them wonder aloud over why they, or people they admire, don't enter public service. Even if their answer is in the negative, they're aware they are not doing all they should, either. I believe that a true summons for national assistance from all citizens -- similar to that of John Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country" -- would strike a responsive chord in America today.

Which comes down to the presidential choices tomorrow.

If Jimmy Carter loses, his defeat will be much more than a rejection of his policy failures, his economic and international record, and all the rest. It will be because he has failed personally to stir a sense of response among his fellow citizens. In the course of six presidential campaigns, I have never found a president who attracted as little enthusiasm as Jimmy Carter. I am not saying that guarantees his defeat. I am saying he has failed singularly to make himself felt as a force in people's lives.

Reagan, a more attractive candidate personally, still arouses doubts -- and will carry them with him to the White House if elected. He certainly has not won the hearts of Americans this fall, even though he quite likely may win more of their votes. As someone remarked in what was almost a national litany of this negative campaign year: "When you go to the polling booth, you realize you've had four years of Carter's mistakes, but we're not at war and that's a plus. And what would happen under Reagan?"

Two people, out of many, offered variations on the same political theme -- of experience and competence -- and unwittingly expressed the uncertainties gripping Americans today.

In South Carolina, a man leaning toward Carter said: "The presidency ages men -- and I think it improves them." In Texas, a woman leaning toward Reagan said: "When I look at Carter, I think of how much he has aged. I wonder if the job is too much for him. Will he be able to handle it for another four years? Will he be able to handle it better? Will he botch up the whole thing?"

In a matter of hours, when the 49th presidential election in our 204 years becomes history, some of those questions will become clearer. Others will require another four years to determine. But we will know at least two significant things after tomorrow -- whether the fifth straight American president has failed to enjoy what used to be the normal two terms in office, or whether we again will have to begin anew with another fresh face in the White House, albeit this one the oldest of all.

That result will furnish the missing segment of our final American Portraits 1980. Unlike other times, when the president's portrait loomed larger than all the rest, this time, like the country itself, the individual picture is less important. This time, the sum of all the national parts is greater than any of the individual components.